When New Zealand-based journalist David Farrier discovered some competitive tickling videos on the internet, he had no idea what he was getting himself into. Farrier thought he would make an intriguing, lighthearted piece about the tickling fetish subculture. When he reached out to interview the folks behind the competitions, Jane O’Brien Media, their response was not the least bit lightheartd. They sent back both an anti-gay and anti-Semitic reply. Then they sent Farrier a slew of legal threats. Farrier found their response so outlandish and bizarre in its cruelty that he pressed on. Two years later and he discovered the seedy underbelly of the world of tickling. In his documentary Tickled, we watch Farrier and co-director Dylan Reeve’s investigation as they discover and confront a corrupt presence in an otherwise positive community.
We spoke with Farrier about the dark side of tickling, laughter in times of pain, and how he is still being attacked by the main-subject of his film who continues to follow Farrier at film screenings accusing him of unethical tactics.
Your movie itself is like being tickled. The subject becomes quite painful yet the audience is still laughing.
Really mixed reactions.
As you’ve been watching the film with a variety of audiences, do you ever feel that they are laughing at moments that are too dark?
Oh yeah, totally. People laugh at different things at different places. A New Zealand audience will do things differently than an American audience. But there are a few moments when people are laughing and I’m thinking to myself, you shouldn’t be laughing there. There’s nothing funny about that. But also it’s cathartic as well. I think people laugh when they’re uncomfortable with something or they don’t know how to deal with it. I remember seeing this horrifying film called Irreversible, which is one of the most disturbing films of all time, and a couple audience members laughed at this horrible place. But I think that’s just venting, people don’t know how to react and so they laugh. But they shouldn’t. [Laughs.] But the sequence in the film with the slo-mo tickling, this tickling fetishist is tickling this guy and people start laughing and then as it goes on it gets to a point where people stop laughing and they’re checking themselves in their own head about why they’re laughing and why they’re not laughing anymore. It becomes the most painful to watch.
And your interest, in the beginning, was just the world of competitive tickling and the world of that fetish. It’s so interesting and weird what you discovered from there.
But there are stories that do that. This did that but on tenfold. When I thought it couldn’t get any stranger, something else weird would happen. There’s this moment in the film where we found out this idea of a tickle cell, where it’s not just happening in one place. This is happening all over the United States and all over the world. There are moments like that where you go, we couldn’t write this. If this was a narrative thing that was written no one would believe me.
I saw the film at Cinefamily and was struck by something someone asked during the Q&A that disturbed me a little. They were theorizing about the behavior of the main subject and I’m wondering how it has been to hear the various theories. Did you get to a point, especially when speaking to a relative of the main subject, that you were dealing with someone with mental issues?
That’s a really important conversation and I’m really glad that it’s in the film. It’s not just a case of someone being evil and doing something crazy. There’s a reason this person got to that point. And I don’t want to name them because I want to keep some secrets. I don’t want to give everything away. But he’s a complex character, definitely. But I can’t theorize on that too much because there are various lawsuits going so I almost can’t talk about it or my opinions on it either. But it’s complicated. It’s not just a simple case of someone being bad and doing this. There are reasons that people do bad things. But the whole film seems to be about that, bullying. If you’re going to be a bully chances are you’ve been bullied in the past as well. It’s a big awful cycle. So the one thing you should take away is don’t bully anyone. Be a kind person and break that cycle. It’s not doing anyone any good.
So you’re now being bullied. And you are being served at every screening. How is it going for you now?
I’m doing okay. We got insurance, errors and omissions insurance, so that if you get sued it’s covered. I also feel confident that I stand behind everything in the film and lawyers have looked at the film. It is unsettling when you get served because we imagined we would but when it happens it always takes you off guard. And no one wants that. But then, at the same time, it shows that we’re onto something. I think when people start suing you then it probably shows that you have some truth there that someone wants to cover up.
The idea of making the film is that it’s a tool to make all this behavior stop because it’s outed. The whole thing’s out there. This whole story stretches back literally 20 years but there’s never been a film about it. So Dylan and I are hoping the film stops this behavior.
And seeing someone get away with what they’re doing for over 20 years, at a certain point does the effort ever feel futile?
Totally. There’s that whole idea, especially in the United States, that if you have money you can shelter yourself with money and nothing will get you. It’s like Robert Durst, like Making a Murderer. If you’ve got money and power then you’re in a much better position to get away with things. And so that’s definitely the case here as well. I like to think that — Magnolia has this film, it’s going to be on HBO — I’d like to think that it’s going to be wide enough that it’s going to make a change. It will help. But you’re dealing with someone who has a lot of money.
And money wins.
Money wins in America. And not just America, the Western world in general. But America seems to be the case of the extreme nature of that idea. You’ve got some really rich people here, and some really poor people and the rich shit all over the poor all the time. But we’re both poor, we’re journalists. Struggling away.
You wanted to show a corrupt person and it didn’t always matter how. How did you develop this approach and what are your standards of journalistic ethics?
It was great having Dylan on the journey as well because he’s a very ethical person and he’s very driven by what’s right and what’s wrong. Not that I’m not. I was trained in journalism, I did a three-year journalism degree and while I ended up working in pop culture and quite like fickle stuff, I’m pretty obsessed with storytelling and current affairs and holding people to account and I think that journalism is incredibly important and it holds powerful people into account. And working alongside, in my newsroom, current affairs journos, I’ve always admired what they did, their tenacity and not backing down.
For some people going into this, many might be interested because they too are in the tickling fetish world or have interest in being tickled. For them seeing it, are they going to be like, “Shoot, my world, it’s so dark. This is the dark side of what I love.”
I don’t think they will. I’m really happy in the film when we talk to Richard, the tickling fetishist, it’s super clear that tickling is all good. This is just a company that has taken it to a bad place. But it could be about anything, I don’t think anyone will watch this film and think tickling is bad. They’ll see that it’s been hijacked by someone that’s taken it to a bad place. We’ve been in touch with the tickling community making the film and our biggest concern was not to make them look dodgy in any way, because they’re not. The tickling community is great. I don’t think anyone leaving this film would think tickling is terrible. I hope.